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LSU Announces Comprehensive Academic Tracking System

The transition from high school to college is typically a challenging one. Students have to learn how to navigate campus, budget time, and manage their day-to-day lives without the supervision of parents, all while maintaining their academic standing and trying to stay on course to graduate in their chosen major.

The 2008 freshman class at LSU has been the first to take part in the pilot program of a new system designed to help keep students on track to receive their undergraduate degrees in four years.

LSU’s Comprehensive Academic Tracking System, or CATS, will monitor the incoming students majoring in biochemistry, political science, finance, and mass communication and alert them when they begin to fall behind in meeting the requirements needed to graduate in four years.

“The University is concerned about students progressing to their degrees and their understanding of what it takes to get classes that they need to graduate on time,” said LSU Vice Provost of Enrollment Management Jim McCoy. “We began exploring the situation four years ago and started putting together systems beyond the University catalog to help our students.”

Students in all majors already have access to eight-semester degree paths online at http://appl010.lsu.edu/stu%5CRecmndPath.nsf/RecmndPathOpen?OpenForm. These paths detail the requirements for all majors, from class numbers down to the grades needed to advance. The CATS pilot program will track students in the four selected majors using these online degree paths and the critical tracking requirements. When students fall behind in the listed requirements to advance, they will be alerted and asked to meet with a counselor.

“We’re going to be proactive,” said University Registrar Robert Doolos. “That’s what this is all about. We want to find out what’s going on and how we can help students succeed.”

The CATS pilot program was developed by a team of University administrators including LSU Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Astrid Merget, various vice provosts, the deans of the College of Basic Sciences, Arts & Sciences, University College, and the Manship School of Mass Communication as well as other faculty and administrators.

“Our primary goal is to not let students drift into some area of uncertainty,” said Kevin Carman, dean of the College of Basic Sciences. “It’s not about telling a student every single class that they have to take, but making them understand the consequences if they don’t take the right ones.”

The pilot program was modeled after a similar tracking system implemented at the University of Florida in 1996. During that time, Florida has seen its six-year graduation rate increase 3 percent and undergraduate retention rates increase 2 percent.

“When we started this process, we thought we’d be able to find some magic bullet, but we realized there isn’t one,” Carman said. “Then we looked at the University of Florida’s system, and it’s pretty simple and straightforward, but has produced some extraordinary results.”

LSU’s Flagship Agenda goals include improving graduation and retention rates. Those rates are some of the metrics often used to evaluate colleges and universities.

Other programs that have already been implemented have included online wait-listing for various classes that usually fill quickly, and limits on how many classes students can drop during their time at LSU.

“We want to eventually make CATS a consistent advising tool across the entire campus,” Doolos said.

Shortly after the fall semester began, the University registrar’s office assessed whether or not the new freshmen in the pilot have scheduled the critical courses in the first semester of their degree programs, as well as whether they have completed the minimum number of hours.

The registrar’s office also conducted an assessment following the fourth day of class, and again after all students have had their opportunity to schedule their spring semester courses, the registrar’s office will monitor if the students in the program have scheduled the critical courses they need for the spring semester. A last assessment will be conducted at the end of the fall semester that will include, when required, whether students met the GPA requirements of their selected majors.

“After each assessment, we will notify students if they are off track,” Doolos said. “We will also notify the departments and colleges about the students who are off track. We will then require that students who are off track see an advisor before they can schedule courses or change existing schedules.”

The pilot program will be evaluated over the next year and, the administrators involved hope, further extended to other majors.

Doolos and the deans involved have acknowledged that there will be some obstacles to the system, such as ensuring that enough sections are offered of critical courses, and that University counselors are ready to handle a potential increase in the time they have to spend meeting with students. But right now, they believe the University is ready to deal with those issues for the four majors involved in the pilot program.

“We also don’t want students to mistake this system for counseling,” said Kevin Cope, professor of English and president of the LSU Faculty Senate. “We don’t want to ignore the human element and the responsibility that students have to take for themselves. But this could be a way to announce problems to them.”

“This is about catching the problems early,” Doolos said. “This isn’t about being punitive, it’s about being proactive.”

Cope praised the development of the CATS model as a “model of good governance of the University,” but also stressed that it won’t be a solution to the issue of raising retention and graduation rates, merely a tool in finding that solution.

“It’s important to remember that this system is first and foremost a technical advance,” he said.

The Manship School was one of the first colleges in the University to adapt the online degree paths and online waiting lists, and Associate Dean David Kurpius is excited about the benefits of the CATS pilot.

“We are very focused on serving students, and we really want them to finish in four years,” he said. “I think this is going to be a success.”

Billy Gomilla | Writer | Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2008

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